In April of 2005, like millions of others around the world, I watched with great interest the election of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger to the papacy.
In April of 2005, like millions of others around the world, I watched with great interest the election of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger to the papacy. It was an astonishing moment in time: the first papal election in the Information Age. Observers from around the globe could follow developments, interact with others via the Internet, and read for themselves, within hours, the texts and news generated from the Vatican.
It was thrilling to be immersed in history in this way—to be able to watch the process by which a successor of Peter emerged on the balcony, waving to the thousands who had poured into St. Peter’s Square in response to the bells and the white smoke. We had gathered too, and now we stood with them, cheering from afar. But who was this seemingly shy man in his ill-fitting vestments, smiling and waving?
Reading The Joy of Knowing Christ, a new book that gives us samples of Pope Benedict’s wisdom, reminded me of those days—and of the wonderful, ongoing journey of getting to know the mind and heart of the man on the balcony.
"Nothing More Beautiful.” For me, the journey began with the rather simple homily Benedict offered at his inaugural Mass. After the opening words of gratitude, he explained the symbols with which he was to be vested that day: the pallium (a narrow fabric band worn around the neck and over the shoulders) and the fisherman’s ring.
The pallium woven of wool evokes shepherds and sheep, but Benedict expanded on the image: “What the pallium indicates first and foremost is that we are all carried by Christ. But at the same time it invites us to carry one another.”
The fisherman’s ring, he said, is a symbol of the call of Peter’s successor to follow him in casting the net to people lost in “the sea salted with so many forms of alienation” so as to bring them into Christ’s love. “There is nothing more beautiful than to be surprised by the gospel, by the encounter with Christ. There is nothing more beautiful than to know him and to speak to others of our friendship with him.”
This homily moved and intrigued me. As a former teacher and the child of teachers and still, in ways, involved in education and catechesis, I am always looking for examples of good teaching. In Benedict, I found an exceptional example.
A Gift for Teaching. Why? It is not simply because he is a great theologian and is immersed in Scripture, theology, and history. There is much more to his gifts.
What I heard in that first homily—and what a reader will find on every page of The Joy of Knowing Christ—are three elements that show how effective and talented a teacher Pope Benedict is.
First, he has a gift of explaining complex ideas clearly without diluting them. Throughout this book, I was impressed by how readable he can be—and by how helpful his words can be as I continue on my journey of faith.
Secondly, as my husband likes to say, Pope Benedict “gets it.” What, exactly, does he “get”? Theology? Scripture?
Well, certainly, but it’s far more than that. Sometimes experts make terrible teachers because they can’t put themselves in the place of students who might struggle with the material that a teacher understands with ease. Benedict isn’t like this. He “gets” the difficulties of discipleship. He understands the challenges that believers face from the modern world and a hostile culture. He also, very intriguingly, understands the inner difficulties of faith: doubts about truth, doubts about one’s own purpose or dignity. Could God really love . . . me?
Finally, Benedict has a deep faith, clearly centered on Christ. It was evident in that first sermon, and it is underscored by the moving passages selected for inclusion in The Joy of Knowing Christ.
God Asks for Our Love. The passages in this book—taken from homilies and addresses Benedict has given since his election as pope—guide us on a journey through the life of Christ. They begin with meditations on Mary, encompass Jesus’ suffering and resurrection, and reach their climax at Pentecost. Every step of the way, Pope Benedict invites us to open ourselves to the truth at the heart of every feast, every Scripture passage, every church teaching he reflects on. Through his words, God reaches out to us in passionate love and unending mercy, knowing exactly who we are and what we need. As Benedict writes:
"God’s sign is simplicity. God’s sign is the baby. God’s sign is that he makes himself small for us. This is how he reigns. He does not come with power and outward splendor. He comes as a baby—defenseless and in need of our help. He does not want to overwhelm us with his strength. He takes away our fear of his greatness. He asks for our love: so he makes himself a child. He wants nothing other from us than our love, through which we spontaneously learn to enter into his feelings, his thoughts, and his will—we learn to live with him and to practice with him that humility of renunciation that belongs to the very essence of love. God made himself small so that we could understand him, welcome him, and love him."
Given that love, so abundantly and wisely portrayed in this book, why would we want to turn away?
Amy Welborn has written many books, including Mary and the Christian Life (The Word Among Us Press), and is working on her own Pope Benedict book, to be released next year. Amy and her family live in Birmingham, Alabama.